Today Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) joined shrimp boat captains and conservation partners in a lawsuit filed in New Orleans to halt BP oil burning operations immediately until the safety of sea turtles can be assured. The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against BP for violating its lease under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.

The lawsuit was filed  in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans by Meyer Gliztenstein & Crystal of Washington DC on behalf of Turtle Island Restoration Network, Center for Biological Diversity, Animal Welfare Institute, and Animal Legal Defense Fund.

See the complaint. See motion for Temporary Restraining Order. See declarations from shrimp boat captains Michael Ellis and Kevin Aderhold.  See declaration from Todd Steiner, Executive Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. (See bottom of page for additional legal documents.

“This is the most inhumane thing I have ever heard, to light that oil when sea turtles are out there trying to escape it,” said Carole Allen, Gulf Director of Turtle Island Restoration Network in Houston, Texas.

The lease that governs BP’s operations requires the company to comply with all environmental “statutes and regulations.” BP’s actions in killing and otherwise harming and harassing endangered sea turtles constitute flagrant violations of its lease with the United States. Killing or harming endangered sea turtles is a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

In an effort to contain the massive oil spill, BP began using “controlled burns,” that involve using shrimp boats to create a corral of the oil by dragging together fire-resistant booms and then lighting the enclosed “burn box” on fire. The “burn boxes” are approximately 60 to 100 feet in diameter. Endangered sea turtles, including Kemp’s ridleys, that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico are also being caught in the corrals being created by BP. This fact has been confirmed by Obama administration wildlife officials at National Marine Fisheries Service. The turtle burning was exposed by shrimp boat captain Michael Ellis, whose comments were videotaped.

“BP is burning turtles alive and it is cruel, heartless and a crime we can’t and won’t allow to continue,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Sea turtles were critically endangered before BP created America’s worst environmental catastrophe, and every effort possible must be taken to rescue endangered turtles from this oil spill. BP needs to reverse course and help double our efforts to rescue sea turtles, not prevent their recovery.”

“The spill was tragically timed for sea turtles that are nesting in the Gulf right now,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Newly hatched sea turtles are swimming out to sea and finding themselves in a mucky, oily mess. News that BP has blocked efforts to rescue trapped sea turtles before they’re burned alive in controlled burns is unacceptable.”

As of today a total of 583 sea turtles have been collected dead (436) and alive (147) in the Gulf area since the oil spill due to oiled waters as well as capture in shrimp trawls. A total of 93 live, oiled sea turtles have been recovered. Many more have likely been injured or killed but not found.

In addition to the Kemp’s ridley, four other endangered sea turtle species are found in the Gulf of Mexico: greens, loggerheads, hawksbills and leatherbacks. They rely on areas throughout the Gulf of Mexico for nesting, reproduction, feeding and migration. All of these turtles are at risk from poisoning from oil and careless controlled burns.

In a related action, yesterday TIRN joined the Center for Biological Diversity in a 60-day notice of intent to sue BP and the U. S. Coast Guard for killing sea turtles illegally under the Endangered Species Act. See press release and notice of intent to sue.